Two years ago, Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart took a bold step by refusing to evict innocent tenants after foreclosure. His actions were challenged in court, but were settled with new requirements imposed on banks before they can proceed with tenant evictions. His actions also put a national spotlight on the plight of tenants in foreclosure situations at a time when few were paying attention to this issue.
Now Sheriff Dart is back in the news, taking a similarly principled stand. Sheriff Dart refuses to evict families from foreclosed properties if banks can’t confirm that the foreclosures were done properly.
Dart announced his new moratorium after national revelations about fraudulent foreclosure filings. On behalf of banks, “robo-signers” (or, as eviction defense lawyer Wallace Oman prefers to call them, “robo-perjurers”) have signed off on countless illegal foreclosures leading to unnecessary displacement and misery across the country. Our government appears to have little appetite for holding these banks accountable or keeping residents in their homes.
Last week, Sheriff Dart wrote to Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase and GMAC/Ally Financial, giving the banks five business days to respond and establish that their controversial evictions were legal. The moratorium took effect this week and will stop or at least delay the eviction of hundreds of families in Cook County. According to Dart’s website, “Dart's office has 500 eviction orders waiting to be executed, with 1,000 more being prepared to be executed - 1/3 of which would be impacted by such a moratorium.”
“I can’t possibly be expected to evict people from their homes when the banks themselves can’t say for sure everything was done properly,” Dart said. “I need some kind of assurance that we aren’t evicting families based on fraudulent behavior by the banks. Until that happens, I can’t in good conscience keep carrying out evictions involving these banks.”
Dart is reportedly planning to extend the moratorium on evictions to other financial institutions if there is evidence of similar questionable foreclosure practices. He has also demanded that bank attorneys provide an affidavit confirming that their foreclosure filings were proper.
“With banks changing hands two or three times and mortgages constantly being purchased by different lenders, we just don’t know how vast this problem is,” Dart said. “What I do know is that there is a cloud over every one of their foreclosure filings.”
Other than Sheriff Dart, sheriffs across the nation have been largely silent about their role in carrying out improper post-foreclosure evictions. Sheriffs are the final link in the eviction chain. Their deputies are the ones who physically go to properties, throw out residents and their possessions, and change the locks. When they do so pursuant to bogus filings by banks, sheriffs become accomplices to these illegal evictions.
Some sheriffs have expressed frustration with their role in evicting renters and other innocent victims of the foreclosure crisis, but few take action to defend residents from abuse at the hands of banks. Instead, they argue that they are just following orders, while residents lose their homes and neighborhoods become vacant.
To date, no California sheriff has adopted a policy of refusing to carry out banks’ illegal post-foreclosure evictions. Any sheriff who does will instantly become a local hero or, as in Sheriff Dart’s case, a national one.
Dean Preston is the Executive Director of Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters’ rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.tenantstogether.org.